The electric guitar has been around for about 80 years, the steel string acoustic for about 150 years, and the nylon string classical for over 300. It should therefore come as no surprise that classical guitarists have figured out a thing or two about guitar positioning.
There are three planes upon which the instrument can pivot.
- The Vertical Axis that determines the degree to which the guitar’s head and neck might swing forward and back.
- The Horizontal Axis that allows us to pivot the plane of the face of the guitar to allow better sight of the fingerboard.
- The Centre Axis that runs through the center of the guitar front to back.
After years of experimentation classical guitarists had pretty well settled on the footstool approach advocated by Francesco Tárrega (1852-1909). A typically right-handed person would rest their instrument on a raised left thigh. This would put the head of the guitar at roughly eye level thus creating an angle approaching 45 degrees. This angle allowed for the most comfort and freedom of movement for the left shoulder, upper arm, forearm, wrist and fingers.
Centre of Gravity
Secondly, they observed that there is a center of gravity for the left hand, which is the fifth fret. In other words, this is the most natural place for the arm to bring the hand up to the neck. While studying Guitar Craft the principle of “center of gravity” was employed to explain the basic functioning of both left and right arms.
Thirdly, it was noted that while playing with the tips of the fingers at the fifth fret that the thumb places its counter support on the back of the neck somewhere opposite between the first and second fingers. When moving down to the basic position (first fret) the thumb will sit more directly opposite the second finger and as you move up the neck towards the 12 fret the thumb will follow slightly behind the fingers.
These are not rules but observations of how body mechanics function. When applying these principles the player would have access to the entire fingerboard (even to the frets above the body by borrowing a technique from cello) without having to contort the body in any way. The back could remain straight and the shoulders level, which would also increase the potential for stamina while minimizing the potential for over exertion.
Left Hand Position
Our concern in all this is twofold. We do not want to have to work unnecessarily to overcome poor position and we want to avoid injury. The most important factor is to get the neck up. Flamenco guitarists do it by balancing the lower bout on the right thigh or by sitting cross-legged. Many contemporary classical guitar players employ one or more of the devices on the market today to raise the guitar without having to use a footstool. Electric guitarists do it with strap postions.
Right Hand Position
The length of the right arm from the shoulder to the elbow determines the strap’s length. This is because the forearm’s movement from the elbow controls the center of gravity for the right arm. The ideal position for the right hand is the pick placed between the 3rd and 4th strings. This is more specific to plectrum style of play. For finger style of play the right forearm rests on the edge of the lower bout placing the hand about 2/3rds into the sound hole. This center of gravity positioning is also important for tonal development. Sometimes a compromise position is necessary for quickly going back and forth between the two styles of play.
Finding Your Own Position With a Guitar Strap
So, stand up, close your eyes and raise your right arm from the elbow. Now place the guitar against your body so that the inside of your right elbow is resting on the lower bout with the pick hovering between the middle strings , headstock at eye level. Adjust the strap so the guitar sits in that position. Now check to see if your center of gravity positions for left and right arms are properly calibrated by raising your arms naturally. Next, experiment with sitting. Notice that if you sit classical style the guitar will nearly replicate the footstool supported position. Swing the lower bout off to the side of the leg and notice that you still retain your center of gravity for both arms.
The Guitar Slinger
Now, having said all that, you may wonder why many guitar players don’t honour these fundamental principles. Many experienced players eventually find suitable and comfortable positions through simple trial and error and intuition, the sooner you discover a “no strain” stance the happier and more comfortable you will be with your playing and practice.
The low-slung guitars of rock musicians, with a few obvious exceptions , seem more influenced by fashion and attitude than comfortable technique. It just makes better sense to make the experience of playing and practicing as comfortable and unstrained as possible. If on the other hand you think the guitar slinger look is just way to cool to ignore then all the power to you. There are a few players that have made it work for them, but then again, maybe they are in pain.